Toy Airplane

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Mary Jo Arnoldi, Ph.D.

Chair Anthropology Department, Curator of African Ethnology

Photo by Jim DiLoreto, Smithsonian Institution

Dr. Mary Jo Arnoldi is an anthropologist who has lived and worked in Senegal and in Mali for over 40 years. Her interest in the region and its people began when she lived in Senegal for two years while she was in the Peace Corps. She often returns to West Africa to research this region's extraordinary art traditions. Her research combines her interest of art history and anthropology, and focuses on the role that art plays in the shaping of culture. She is currently the chair of the Anthropology department and Curator of African Ethnology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. She played an important part in the creation of the museum's permanent exhibit "African Voices."

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This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.
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Chair Anthropology Department, Curator of African Ethnology
Photo by Jim DiLoreto, Smithsonian Institution

Recycled Art in Senegal

Senegal, nicknamed by travelers as the Gateway to Africa, is a country located at the most western point of the coast of Sub-Sahara Africa. In Senegal, the selling of hand-crafted recycled goods is a thriving industry and an important part of the informal economy in cities like the capital, Dakar. These goods can come in many forms. They include farming and gardening tools, like wheelbarrows and watering cans, and household goods like cooking pots and storage trunks. They are even considered a form of art. Many children make their own recycled toys from discarded bits of wire, plastic, and other discarded items. They might also get their parents to buy them a recycled toy, like a jet airplane, that is available in the market. These goods are popular with both locals and tourists.

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About Dolls and Toys

Dolls and toys are typically thought to be nothing more than children’s playthings. However, throughout history different cultures have used them in a variety of ways. Dolls and toys come in many shapes and sizes and are made from different materials depending on what is available to the makers in the surrounding environment. They are miniature representations of either people or concepts, and, as such, they can be used as teaching tools and have meaning for adults as well. For example, the Hopi Katsina doll is used to teach children about the Katsina spirit it represents. In many cultures, such as those in Africa, adults use dolls to teach children different rituals or cultural traditions. Dolls can also be used in a commercial setting by serving as the model for dressmakers or sold as commodities by craftsmen. Other dolls, such as those of the Inuit, are used as a means of cultural expression and pride by showing traditional dress, or they are used in depictions of important events in the culture’s history or present life.

Baule woodcarvers at work, Yagolikro village, Ivory Coast
Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1972. Image no. EEPA EECL 6900. Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

About Humans and the Environment

Humans have always manipulated their environment, whether by acquiring food, making and using tools, or other aspects of daily life. They are constantly interacting with their environment on a daily basis. By using the available materials, humans have created shelter, made tools, created containers and vessels, and produced items of personal and cultural significance. Many of these resources are naturally occurring, such as stones, minerals, animal bones, or organic fibers from plants, while others are made from combining materials. The process of acquiring these materials and the manufacturing process can be traditional practices that are passed down from one generation to another. Because materials are unique to the location of different communities and cultures, by studying the types of materials, as well as animal remains found and the processes used to manipulate them, anthropologists and researchers can learn about the daily activities and lifestyles of the cultures they are studying. In what ways do you interact with your environment on a daily basis?

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